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Dustin Putman

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Loser (2000)
3 Stars

Directed by Amy Heckerling
Cast: Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari, Greg Kinnear, Tom Sadoski, Zak Orth, Jimmi Simpson, Dan Aykroyd, Twink Caplan, Andy Dick, David Spade, Colleen Camp.
2000 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for profanity, drug abuse, and mild profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 22, 2000.

In the last two decades, writer-director Amy Heckerling has defined a generation with the respective high school classics, 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," and 1995's "Clueless." Her latest teen opus, "Loser," has transported its characters to college, and while it probably won't catch on in a big way like the former two pictures did, it remains a charming and innocent-eyed romantic comedy, a teen movie that is refreshingly more serious than most, and is not littered with raunchy jokes about sex and human anatomy. Somewhat a throwback in tone to the '80s John Hughes era of "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," Heckerling gains mileage by creating and understanding characters who have thoughts, ideas, and dreams outside of the requirements of the plot. The same can be said for "Fast Times" and "Clueless," and that is, no doubt, the reason why Heckerling has prospered each time she has ventured into the world of teenagers.

Repairing two of the stars of last year's big hit, "American Pie," Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari are delightfully cast as Paul Tannek and Dora Diamond, two NYU students who are having trouble making it through their first year of college in the Big Apple. Paul, a nice lug of a guy from the Midwest, attempts to make friends away from home, but fails to even win over his three obnoxious roommates (Zak Orth, Jimmi Simpson, Tom Sadoski), who spend their time partying, getting wasted, and taking advantage of girls. Paul wants to fit in, but cares too much about his education to risk losing his scholarship, and soon finds himself kicked out of his dorm room and relocating to a veterinarian clinic.

Meanwhile, Dora is simply struggling to get the money to go to the school by working as much as possible on the side as a waitress at a strip bar, and has begun an affair with her European Literature professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear). Out of fear of the school finding out about their teacher-student relationship, he yearns to keep Dora a secret, and seems to only really want her around for (1) sex, and (2) doing chores for him around his apartment as a sort of slave.

Paul and Dora, who both share Professor Alcott's class, become good friends when Paul's scheming ex-roommates hold a party and give Dora some roofies, causing her to nearly OD and have to get her stomach pumped. With Alcott listed as her next-of-kin, but him claiming that he doesn't know her, Paul lets her stay at the vet clinic with him while she recuperates, and they quickly bond. What Dora fails to recognize, though, is how much Paul is starting to care for her, and how bad a relationship she is already in with Alcott--one that she really needs to get out of.

"Loser" wins no points for originality, but then again, neither did "Clueless," which was one of 1995's best films. Boosting a smart, savvy screenplay and a bright, young cast, Amy Heckerling succeeds in telling an oft-told story by writing characters who may be flawed, but are good-hearted inside and often out.

Also helping matters is a tinge of extra realism that is rare for the teen genre. Paul must maintain a 3.5 GPA to keep the scholarship he has earned, but without at least a B+ in Professor Alcott's class, he won't be able to. Not only is Dora stuck in a relationship with a big jerk, but when she is fired at her job, she has no idea how she is going to get the money for next semester's classes, nor how she is going to be able to keep commuting back and forth from her suburban home to Manhattan. The desperation that both characters possess is true-to-life, rather than the whole movie being solely about whether the guy gets the girl, or who is going to take who to the prom.

Jason Biggs rose to stardom last year with "American Pie," and while he was perfectly endearing there, he is even better here. His Paul is a young man who may not be fashionably hip or a big partier, but he is sweet, morally honest, and wants to do good in school. Constantly being pulled down by the criticisms he receives from his roommates, Paul has no idea where he fits in, and is unsure if he ever will, and the way he feels is made palpable by Biggs' engaging turn.

With "American Pie," "American Beauty," and now "Loser," Mena Suvari is shaping up to become one of Hollywood's most talented young actresses. In just a few movies, she has played a full spectrum of diverse characters, and has been successful in each one. Suvari's Dora is a bright girl who is understanding to other people's feelings, and is the first person who does not judge Paul based on how much he parties or how "cool" he is, but on what he is like as a person. Whenever Biggs and Suvari are onscreen together, they sparkle and are genuinely charismatic, and whenever they are in their own individual scenes, their attractive personalities and talent carry them along.

As Paul's airhead roommates, Zak Orth, Jimmi Simpson, and Tom Sadoski, do their jobs with flare, but have no positive qualities. The same can be said for Greg Kinnear (2000's "What Planet Are You From?"), who has recently been making a living playing jerks, but is so good at it that it's almost scary. The rest of the cast are in basically cameos, from Dan Aykroyd, as Paul's earnest father, to David Spade, as a video store clerk, to Twink Caplan, as Dora's coworker at the strip bar.

As with "Clueless," "Loser" has got one of the strongest soundtracks for a teen-targeted movie in recent memory, with such popular, non-mainstream fare as "Out of My Head," by Fastball, to "Blue (Da Ba Dee)," by Eiffel 65, to an appearance by band Everclear. And also, as with "Clueless," when the two central characters eventually discover their true feelings and finally have that long-awaited first kiss, it actually means something, because they don't seem like two actors locking lips, but two real people whom we know--we just know--have finally found the one person they deserve.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman